Vandermark “Site Specific” Release Show Reviewed in Downbeat


Vandermark Celebrates Photo Book Release in Chicago

The Chicago creative music fan base is compact but loyal, and key enthusiasts, including promoters and critics, convened at the Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery on Jan. 23 to catch a rare solo performance by Ken Vandermark in support of Site Specific, the reedist’s ambitious CD/book compilation of photographs and accompanying recordings.

The concert began late as a capacity crowd informally assembled in the third floor gallery space, located above the record store Dusty Groove. After an erudite introduction from curator/gallery owner/DownBeat contributor John Corbett, in which he expressed gratitude for his decades-long association with Vandermark, the reedist made his way through the throng.

With clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone and tenor saxophone ready for action on the floor, Vandermark, a 1999 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, took position in front of an exotic painting by German artist Kati Heck. Bashful, nervous and perhaps a little worn out (he’d recently hosted an intense weeklong series at John Zorn’s New York venue, The Stone), Vandermark interspersed generous anecdotes amid fiery improvisations during his set. The intervening monologues allowed Vandermark to catch his breath after full-bore extrapolations on each member of his woodwind arsenal, but they also proved elucidating, amusing and articulate.

One such anecdote preceded a clarinet tribute to avant-garde saxophonist Fred Anderson (1929–2010), and involved a story about a shared road tour on which Anderson had experienced an epiphany about romaine lettuce.

Another story gave props to Dutch clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Ab Baars, and recalled a concert where he and Vandermark had been drowned out by an overpowering drum duel between Han Bennink and Hamid Drake.

Lighthearted, impassioned and informative, Vandermark’s remarks added value to what would have been a strong and varied musical soliloquy without them. Despite his discursive introductions, his musical forays were succinct and tightly focused. He has played with a panoply of improvisers across the globe, and this diversity of experience has become the fuel for his creative approach.

An association with power trio The Thing and Mats Gustafsson was evident in his hair-trigger start to a powerful baritone sax excursion, investigating all registers of the horn and extended techniques such as key clacking, popping and circular breathing.

Vandermark—initially categorized as an energy player—has become increasingly taxonomical in his approach, like his heroes Anthony Braxton and British sax scientist John Butcher. Each of Vandermark’s improvisations was clearly discernible from the last, not merely a cavalcade of techniques or effects required to sustain momentum.

Though tenor is terra firma for him, Vandermark is equally bold on baritone and clarinet, and his playing on the latter is particularly rich and resonant (and intermittently piercing). He’s also trained his fingers to negotiate non-standard key configurations (following a trail blazed by Evan Parker), and his firsthand absorption of Ethiopian traditions order online usa (he’s worked frequently in Addis Ababa) fuses whiffs of Albert Ayler’s rubbery rhapsodizing in the lower register with a Stravinsky-esque austerity.

Given the variety and energy of the hour long set, much of which seemed to be mining new material, as well as his estimable poise, it was easy to momentarily forget that this event was also a book release party to showcase his photography.

Like Peter Brötzmann, who has exhibited artwork several times at Corbett vs. Dempsey, Vandermark has emerged as an artist whose visual works bear a strong corollary to his music and reinforce his worldview.

Despite his myriad interactions with musicians, there are no living people depicted in Vandermark’s 167 photographs in the capacious volume Site Specific.

The book functions as an ineffable travelogue of the itinerant musician, with meditations on diaphanous hotel curtains in Zurich, Zagreb, Pavia and Stuttgart; almost obsolete push-button phones in Paris, São Paolo and Vienna; arrays of designer furniture; and lonely light bulbs viewed from Orson Wells-ian angles.

Peeling paint, excerpts of haphazard graffiti and urban signage are common subjects for street photographers, and a number of these themes populate the pages of Vandermark’s book, but the vast majority bespeak a certain peripatetic melancholia and reveal his canny in-camera editing and sophisticated sense of form.

Limiting the edition of Site Specific (there are 500 copies hand-numbered) recalls Bennink’s ethos with the Instant Composers Pool of making the output of a given concept finite. In a transcribed monologue from a house concert at Kate Dumbleton’s residence archived in one of two CDs attached to the book, Vandermark states he was inspired by author Jorge Luis Borges’ short piece “The Witness.” More specifically, he wanted to communicate “the idea of chronicling information [and the notion that] there’s a stopping point, when the witnesses go.”

Perhaps for that reason, before dedicating a piece to Dutch voice artist Jaap Blonk, Vandermark announced it would be the last time he would perform said piece. With Vandermark, there’s always a documentation and then a moving on.

Engineer Dave Zuchowski faithfully captured the Dumbleton/Ratchet Series house set in August 2014 for the audio component of Site Specific, and he also recorded Vandermark in varied acoustical settings in Kentucky: the Workhouse Ballroom, Phoenix Hill Train Trestle and Louisville Skate Park. During moments at the latter location, in a pipe tunnel, Vandermark’s baritone sax almost sounds like a cello.

Armed with a formidable work ethic, Vandermark remains an effective and disarmingly humble proselytizer for creative music—and creativity in general.

(Note: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which has counted Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake among its members, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. To read an interview with trumpeter and AACM member Lester Bowie, click here.)

By Micahel Jackson

Originally published 1/27/16 at